Friday, February 29, 2008

Keith Parsons thinks the objection isn't so overrated

A redated post.

Keith Parsons thinks the argument is not so overrated. See these comments in a two-journal exchange with me:

It will simply not do far Hart (or Reppert) to take refuge in familiar Humean conundrums about causality. Much of the progress of science has been progress in understanding how things interact: Plate Tectonics tells us how crustal plates interact to produce earthquakes, volcanoes, mountains and other geological phenomena. Likewise, ecology helps us to understand the enormously complex interactions with their physical environment and each other. Molecular biology explains the interactions of complex molecules, e. g. enzymes and their substrates. Even at the rock-bottom level of quarks and gluons we have well-confirmed, mathematically precise theories that often make (as in Quantum Electrodynamics) astonishingly accurate predictions. These theories tell us how fundamental particles interact.
Keith M. Parsons, "Further Reflections on the Argument from Reason" Philo (Spring-Summer 2000), 93.

As Lycan notes above, Descartes took this objection seriously, and he should have. Surely dualists owe the rest of us some sort of account. After all they posit and entity that has no physical properties (and consequently is undetectable by any empirical means), but which is not an abstract entity since it somehow interacts with physical things—in a way that violates conservation laws, by the way. Souls could not have been produced by physical means, and their putative existence raises a host of unanswerable questions. (For example, at what point at the evolution of hominids did our ancestors acquire souls? Homo habilis or Homo erectus, maybe).

Keith M. Parsons, "Need Reasons be Causes? A Further Reply to Victor Reppert's Argument from Reason", Philosophia Christi (Vol. 5, No. 1, 2003) pp. 72-73.


Hallq said...

Hmmm... guess it's a more interesting argument if it's framed in an empirical manner that goes beyond saying "this just doesn't make sense."

Brandon said...

Parsons is blatantly wrong that Descartes posited an entity that "has no physical properties (and consequently is undetectable by any empirical means)"; no one who has read the Discourse on Method can possibly think this, since Descartes there identifies empirical marks for the soul, and he regularly attributes to it physical properties (just not properties of extension). As Descartes's critics usually do, he poses a problem for him solely by assuming things that are false.

That said, there is an issue that needs to be taken seriously by the dualist; it's not interaction, however, but determination of motion.

Jason said...

Actually, the particular people Keith is primarily arguing against (whether classifiable as Cartesian dualists or otherwise), posit an entity which _produces_ physical properties; consequently it shouldn't be objectionable that this is not an abstract entity, and that it should be able to interact with that which it produces. There is no 'violation' of conservation laws, because (per the posit) the natural system is not the end-all, be-all of existence. To borrow an analogy from Lewis, that kind of complaint would be like saying the laws of mathematics have been 'violated' by adding coins to a drawer that already has some total (zero or otherwise) of coins.


Jason said...

Let me add that if the notion of mentality is excluded, what we're talking about is something already widely 'posited' among atheistic or agnostic physicists anyway: that our natural system is produced and maintained by something effectively supernatural to it. There may or may not be good scientific (or other) reasons for agreeing with that notion; but do its opponents in other venues think it proper to resort to rape analogies in order to complain about the proposal??


Anonymous said...

JRP wrote: " its opponents in other venues think it proper to resort to rape analogies...?!"

I sincerely hope that this remark was a subtle attempt at humor. But just in case it wasn't, I should point out that the word "violation" is a technical term widely used in the physics literature. 14 papers with the words "violate(d)" or "violation" in the title have been lodged at the Los Alamos preprint server (at this year already. The word has nothing to do with "rape analogies".

And I would further question JRP's claim that the view that "our natural system is produced and maintained by something effectively supernatural to it" is "widely 'posited' among atheistic or agnostic physicists anyway". The odd agnostic physicist might believe something like this, but (to my knowledge) it is not a view that is "widely" held. Can JRP produce any evidence to support his claim?

Jason said...


So far as I can tell, physicists (of any non-theistic philosophical stripe) are divided along the following lines in regard to the production and maintenence of the evident system of Nature.

a.) that Nature came into existence from apparently ‘nothing’, but that it did in fact come into existence. (I was under the impression that this is currently the majority position, if not the overwhelming one. Am I misinformed about this?) One way or another, whether this means that the system came into existence from _something_ not itself (which is supernaturalism, though not in itself necessarily theism) even though a given scientist may not enter into speculation about what the something is, or that the proposition is supposed to be taken seriously at face value (actually from _nothing_, not even the quantum flux effects found in the vacuum of the existant natural system); this position absolutely involves the kind of ‘violation’ of conservation of matter/energy that Keith is complaining about: a conservation that applies only to the system of Nature itself. (Which is a way of saying that the system only reacts and counterreacts without introducing effects.)

b.) a certain minority (though possibly a large one) splits the difference between (a) and (c) positions, by denying that the natural system _per se_ ever began existing from non-existence, but that the particles of natural matter and energy did begin to come into existence, produced by this foundational level of energy, still to be found in regard to the zero-point balance between every pair of masses. Even so, the zero-point energy is supposed to be rather different in character from the energy/matter it has produced, doesn’t have spatial characteristics, etc. Its behaviors in the produced space-time field ‘naturally’ (and it does apparently continue to introduce behaviors) take on the character of the space-time field, but its own ‘nature’ is _not_ to be identified with those characteristics.

Its first advantage, philosophically speaking, over (a), is that it avoids having to violate (yes I know it’s a technical term--though I had a reason to call it rape imagery in the way Keith was using it, which I’ll come to later) the law of noncon, and scientifically it _might_ also count as avoiding a violation of the conservation of mass/energy; but (as a further apparent philosophical advantage) it also seems to provide a sort of comfortable ‘homefield’ that natural science can have some information of, that _doesn’t_ appear to be sentient activity. (i.e. instead of saying that the evident natural system comes from nothing, or from something unstated that, heck, might turn out to be God anyway, instead it comes from this underlying system of energy.)

Even so, due to the strong distinction in the proposition between the foundational zero-point energy and the resultantly produced natural matter/energy, for all practical purposes this might as well be a proposition of ontological supernaturalism.

I borrow this notion, with some tweaks toward philosophical vitalism, as the Puria in my novels, btw. {plug!}{plug!} {g}

c.) another certain minority (I gather smaller than (a), and currently smaller than (b)) go the distance and just outright posit a different system of reality from Nature altogether, which produces Nature in much the same way God is supposed to do, but which is avowedly a non-theistic reality. Obviously this is blatant supernaturalism, whether or not they call it that.

d.) another certain minority (I gather smaller than either (a) or (b), and maybe also smaller than (c)) simply reject all connotations of supernaturalism inherent in (a), (b), or (c), challenging the notion of Nature coming-into-existence or being produced (not to say upkept) on grounds of category errors. The zero-point energy, in this case, isn’t something fundamentally different than other energy/matter relationships; but is either simply a different-behaving energy of the same ‘substance’ (as we might say in ontological philosophy) as other energy, or else is actually an abstracted behavior effect itself, derived precisely _from_ the force-interactions of otherwise existent mass-entites.

This is frankly the only proposition in the set that I consider to be purely naturalistic, in a philosophical sense, even though I gather that philosophical naturalists tend on the overwhelming majority to currently hold either to (a) or (b). This is the position I myself would hold to if I was a philosophical naturalist; and I have been warning my comrades among apologists for years now that this position has a lot more going for it than the relative paucity of its actual defenders would seem to indicate. I seriously believe that much of (a) position rests on category errors which will be eventually overthrown from within naturalism, leading to a majority of (b) and (d) (but especially (d)) among philosophical naturalists instead--and we, as apologists for supernaturalism (including supernaturalistic theism), had better be getting ahead of the curve, at risk (if I may be allowed the pun) of being Left Behind. {g!}

As an aside, I realize that sometimes physicists try to get around the noncon problems of (a) by trying to claim that behaviors otherwise obtaining within an _already existant_ system of natural particles (zero-point vacuum behaviors for instance) account for the production of the system. As far as I am concerned, they fall into one of the first three categories.

Now, I was under the impression that the four positions I have described above are either exhaustive of the non-theistic claims of ontology, even among non-theistic scientists, or else at the least represent the overwhelming majority; with positions (a) and (b) representing the (current) overwhelming majority within that set, and with (a) in its two flavors representing the majority (even if not the overwhelming one) within set (a..b). Furthermore, I was under the impression that this was more-or-less common knowledge in the field.

Are there other non-theistic ontology positions, scientifically speaking, that are not contained in this set? Have I gotten the proportions wrong?

If the answer to those two questions is no (and if the first is no but the second is yes, then the proportion would have to be radically corrected in overwhelming favor of (d) in order to avoid my claim without further discussion), then I further claim that set (a..c) effectively amounts to claims of supernaturalism, ontologically speaking, and/or will involve just the kind of ‘violation’ of conservation of matter/energy that Keith was complaining about--and that (given nos to the first two questions) what he is complaining about is thus actually, by far, the majority position in the field.

Which brings us to the rape analogy. Keith and similar critics would have us reject effectively supernatural introduction of effects into the natural system, on grounds that this somehow _violates_ the conservation of matter/energy. It seems reasonably clear enough to me that the proper answer to this is, “Duh! So what?!” It isn’t as though there can be anything _wrong_ with this, on the proposition as given, any more (as I mentioned previous) than the laws of mathematics would be 'violated' by having coins added to whatever total of coins was in a drawer.

But Keith (and similar critics) would have us believe there _is_ something _wrong_ with this _on the proposition as given_. Either that, or they are simply and clusmily complaining that, dang it, supernaturalism isn’t naturalism but naturalism is _true!_

Positions (a..c) above, however, either certainly ((a) and (c)) or arguably ((b)) feature exactly the same kind of ‘violation’ that Keith is complaining about. I seem to recall him, though, accepting some variation of one of those three positions (not c {g}). Why isn’t he complaining about ‘violation’ in _that_ case?? I suspect it’s because (a..c) don’t involve theism; whereas on the other hand (as I implied near the beginning of my previous comment) the particular people he is disputing against _are_ proposing not only supernaturalism but also theism.

Yet our supernaturalism really isn’t any different from the kind of thing being proposed under (a..c). _Except for being theistic._ There is an active intention involved in our proposal.

One way or another, then, I believe Keith is making either a purely emotional appeal or else an attempt at a moral appeal, amounting to a complaint that we are proposing God wrongly forcing His attentions on Nature. In effect, it’s an appeal over against a rape.

Jason Pratt

Anonymous said...


Thank you for your response, which was much more detailed than I expected. It is of course difficult to say with any certainty what the majority view of physicists would be on the question as you have outlined it. To my knowledge there has been no extensive polling of physicists' views on the "origins of Nature". However, most physicists of my acquaintance have little interest in metaphysics, and I suspect the majority view would in fact be "No opinion".

You mentioned four basic positions on the "origins of Nature", namely
(a) "Nature came into existence from apparently ‘nothing’"
(b) "the particles of natural matter and energy did begin to come into existence," and "were produced by the zero-point energy... which is supposed to be rather different in character from the energy/matter it has produced"
(c) "a different system of reality produces Nature in much the same way God is supposed to do"
(d) like (b), except "the zero-point energy isn’t something fundamentally different than [sic] other energy/matter relationships"

Position (a) expresses a common popular misconception about the way the universe comes into being in Big Bang cosmology. It might well be true that the majority of physicists not working in cosmology, relativity or quantum gravity would, when pressed for an opinion, cleave to the popular view and opt for position (a). I don't know. But I do believe that the vast majority of physicists who specialize in the areas mentioned would choose (b) or (d).

You said you were "under the impression that [(a)] is currently the majority position, if not the overwhelming one." I would be curious to know where you got this impression from. Can you name any physicists who have publicly defended position (a) in the last 10 years?

In any case, the default assumption of most cosmologists is that a complete theory of quantum gravity, if one is ever found, will describe how space and time "emerged" from some high-energy quantum state (or "quantum foam"). This is presumably the position you were sketching out in (b). And as far as I can tell, the difference between your positions (b) and (d) is akin to the difference between substance dualism and substance monism. It is difficult to see how such a difference would translate into the language of physics, and I suspect that most physicists would regard positions (b) and (d) as empirically equivalent.

All of this is somewhat secondary, however. My main cavil was with your claim that "something effectively supernatural" is "widely 'posited' among atheistic or agnostic physicists". Whatever their feelings towards positions (a)-(d), I can assure you that the vast majority of physicists do not believe that their views (or lack of views) on the "origins of Nature" commit them to the existence of anything supernatural. In particular, if a mathematically consistent theory of quantum foam is ever formulated, then - no matter what properties it turns out to have - quantum foam will be regarded by physicists as an entirely natural entity.

However, your statement that "I further claim that set (a..c) effectively amounts to claims of supernaturalism, ontologically speaking" seems to indicate that any assurance I make about the beliefs of physicists will cut very little ice. Physicists, it seems, are committed to supernaturalism whether they believe it or not. Now, I am not personally aware of any definition of "naturalism" or "supernaturalism" that makes the existence of supernatural entities the necessary logical consequence of vague ideas about the properties of quantum foam. But if you have one, I would be interested to see it.

Jason said...

(Note: in case Victor ever redates this post, this was written on Monday night April 9, 2007. On the off-chance that Anon, whoever he or she is, doesn’t reply again, please don’t hold this against him or her: Victor’s main page has a lot of postage on it right now--ironically a significant portion of it is mine, in dialogue with Keith Parsons on a completely different topic {lopsided g}--so this thread could be easily lost and/or run off the bottom before Anon notices a reply has been sent. Besides which, due to topical complexity, this may be the longest comment I’ve ever posted.)

Anon (and likewise afterward): {{However, most physicists of my acquaintance have little interest in metaphysics, and I suspect the majority view would in fact be "No opinion".}}

I have difficulty believing that a physicist would have absolutely no opinion on the topic of cosmology, seeing as how _something_ will have been taught about the Big Bang etc. in whatever high schools and college they attended before becoming professional physicists. It’s part of the popular culture nowadays; and its a part of the culture that they have more access to (even if in passing) than most people have.

I have no difficulty believing, though, that they would have have little interest in _metaphysics_ per se. I also would have no difficulty believing that they didn’t recognize they are dealing in metaphysics whenever it occurs to them to think about such things--that’s very common. Your example at the end, for instance, is about a metaphysical claim: that quantum foam will be regarded by physicists as _an entirely natural entity_--no matter what properties they discover it turns out to have! Metaphysics doesn’t mean that the topic is affirming the supernatural, or even that it’s necessarily about the supernatural; but that kind of statement is being made _about_ supernaturalism in exclusion against it.

That being said, I’m pretty sure the four basic non-theistic positions I listed would be considered ‘scientific’ in topic by scientists, as well as ‘metaphysical’ by metaphysicians. And I would have no problem with that: there isn’t a straight exclusion of category between the two classes of ideas.

{{"the zero-point energy isn’t something fundamentally different than [sic] other energy/matter relationships"}}

True, I should have written ‘from’. Good catch. {editorial g!}

{{Position (a) expresses a common popular misconception about the way the universe comes into being in Big Bang cosmology.}}

Personally I would agree; I mean about this being a popular misconception. Please keep in mind, though, that I said ‘_apparently_ nothing’ in that description, dividing this into two further parts: that the universe did in fact (not just apparently) come into existence from nothing-not-even-a-vacuum; or that the universe came into existence from _something_ but the something is not speculated about, being outside a given scientist’s range of interest and/or being considered as not being something a scientist per se should be trying to figure out. (A position like the latter could easily sound like “no opinion” from a careful and thoughtful physicist trying not to go further than his purview.)

Still, when I read or hear scientists making statements to us in the popular public, this is the kind of thing (in one of two subflavors) that I have most often heard. (I wish I still had the Discovery magazine article from a couple of years ago, interviewing an admittedly maverick particle physicist who was very insistent that nothing existed before the Bang, not even vacuum; but that quantum effects such as found in the vacuum between already-existant particles then produced the existant particles. He was quite overtly insulting toward gullible theists who claimed God created the universe... {wry g} Still, I have no problem emphasizing that even in my own experience he was an exception. When I was thinking of category (a), I was mainly thinking about (a-2) as far as physicists are concerned.)

{{It might well be true that the majority of physicists not working in cosmology, relativity or quantum gravity would, when pressed for an opinion, cleave to the popular view and opt for position (a). I don't know. But I do believe that the vast majority of physicists who specialize in the areas mentioned would choose (b) or (d).}}

I would have no problem with that proportion being true; and indeed I indicated that if it wasn’t true yet, I fully expected it to become true and to eventually percolate over to our own neck of the disputation woods. {g} Which, I added, my comrades had better be preparing to deal with, rather than holding onto a notion of cosmology represented by (a) among their opponents.

{{Can you name any physicists who have publicly defended position (a) in the last 10 years?}}

As far as (a-1) goes, I do recall that fellow I read a couple of years ago. However, I consider that to be a minority position within a. Since the _other_ part of what I described as (a) would be much the same as agnosticism on the topic of the source of the universe’s existence, I’m inclined to answer, “I suspect the majority view would in fact be ‘No opinion.’” {g}

Or to put it the same way as Hawking famously noted in _A Brief History of Time_, in 1988, “Existence [prior to the Big Bang] can be ignored because it would have no observational consequence.” Though I think Hawking himself _doesn’t_ in fact “ignore” it, despite it having no observational consequence (more precisely, having no observationality). But if he was holding strictly to that statement, it would be (a-2).

Perhaps this is not the majority position among particle physicists today; but whether it is or it isn’t, it falls into what I described under category (a): either really from nothing, or else from nothing _that we can scientifically talk about_. (Wasn’t it John Maddox, editor of _Nature_, who complained in annoyance in 1989 about the Bang being “not susceptible to [scientific] discussion”? His compaint was because this kept an open door to those ‘creationists’...)

It needs to be noted, that whenever physicists put forth a version of origin theory where the scale factor is actually taken _to_ zero, then they are effectively proposing that the universe was _not_ existant at that point of space-time--or at best was existant in only the same way that geometric points can be considered ‘existant’, i.e. as a postulated idea with _zero_ physical existence. Saying that the mass and energy level at that point would be equal to infinity, is another way of saying that (in essence) a division is being made by zero. A zero-physical characteristic universe, is a universe that does not naturally exist. A fundamental real existence that isn’t natural but produces the natural, though, is....? (Hint: not extranatural. {g})

For what it’s worth, I don’t know that it’s actually correct (I suspect it isn’t) to understand a scientific origin theory as involving an _actual_ zero-point singularity. I suspect it’s supposed to be understood more like a hyperbola which can be traced closer and closer to zero _without ever actually reaching it_, just as one cannot ever actually reach infinity mathematically.

Nevertheless, if a proponent--such as, say, Nicholas Hugget, philosopher of physics at the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2002--while essentially defending the notion that we shouldn’t be trying to scientifically arrive at a singularity, still goes on to insist that there _is_ an initial singularity; then we’re back to an actual ‘is’, even if we’re not supposed to be able to reach it. That actual ‘is’ makes all the difference, because (unlike the proposal I was describing above), it’s effectively an admission that the universal expansion comes from a zero-physical origin.

Penn State physicist Lee Smolin, summarizing the state of the question in 1997’s _The Life of the Cosmos_, as to what he expects research to uncover later (2007 would count as later, I guess {g}), provides three options:

[A] There is a singularity, even when quantum mechanics is taken into consideration. (In principle this would be equal to my (a) description, whether first or second variant.)

[B] The singularity is eliminated, or prevented rather (keeping in mind we’re actually tracing the effects backward, so ‘preventing’ wouldn’t be strictly accurate), by some quantum mechanical effect. (In principle this would be equal to my (d) description.)

[C] We reach a state where it is simply no longer appropriate to think, much less discuss and propose, in terms of physical existence at all. (Which would be (a-2), I think. But it could be (b), instead, depending on whether the scientist goes ahead and tries to cipher it out in what must end up being _non-natural_ terms: that is, terms which are substantially different, in the ontological meaning of ‘substance’, than the terms of natural science.)

Adolf Grünbaum makes much the same points I have been making, regarding the implications of a singularity in scientific theories--which is why he has devoted effort to arguing against other secularist physicists who insist on that singularity being a real part of the universe’s history. His gist would also seem to be that, as good philosophical naturalists (not to say atheists), his peers had better not be trying to discuss non-natural realities behind apparent ‘origins’, either.

His 1993 article in _Philosophy of Science_ Vol 60, No 4, pp 638-646, makes for interesting reading, as he is there continuing a long-running dispute with J. Narlikar, who--accepting (at that time anyway) the prevalent view that a singularity must be included in scientific cosmology, but rejecting a “theological construal of the creation”, was essentially arguing for an atheistic supernatural origin of the natural system. (Not very competently, as Grünbaum argues, one problem being that Narlikar’s proposal ends up only being an incoherent naturalism!)

The mere fact that he may never have used the word ‘supernatural’ is nothing at all to the point--the concept is what counts, not the term, and Grünbaum knew that very well, which is why he (and apparently Narlikar) called it “secular creationism”. (This article is handily archived for free viewing by our pals at the Secular Web here--sorry, my html coding is incompetent today, apparently! {rueful g}

This article was apparently added to the SecWeb with slight additions by Grünbaum in 1996.)

Grünbaum bases his case primarily on attacking certain conceptual problems in Narlikar’s proposal (which criticisms I agree with), though he also asserts that a singularity concept is imported _into_ general relativity theory, not derivable _from_ it. (Not entirely sure he actually makes that as a _case_ in his paper, but I’m willing enough to buy it conceptually.)

Still, at the end of the day he ends up (or so it seems to me) saying two different things himself (italic emphases are his):

1.) “I have criticized those atheists who have imposed an ideological straitjacket on the scientific legitimacy of any big bang model that features a finite age of the universe (Grünbaum 1990). I object to them on two counts: (i) As I have argued (Grünbaum 1989; 1991; 1996), there is no basis at all for their fear that any such model actually lends cogent support to religious creationism; but (ii) even if the model were to abet creationism, sound scientific practice makes it methodologically unacceptable to reject the model solely on antireligious grounds. If a model of the universe does command empirical support, then one must let its philosophical chips fall where they may.”

Here, he seems to be willing to allow the scientific legitimacy of a bang model that features a finite age of the universe. Before this statement, though, he inveighed against versions of the Bang theory that involved a singularity; and his criticisms were that they _weren’t_ good science:

2.) “In the Case (i) model [regarded by Grünbaum as ‘spurious’ and ‘relativistically illegitimate’], the big bang is putatively the temporally first physical event of the spacetime, and is said to occur at the instant t = 0. But this scenario is not countenanced by GTR precisely because the big bang does not meet the requirements for being a physical event in the GTR. Instead, the big bang is a "singularity" in at least the sense that, as we approach it, the spacetime metric of the GTR becomes degenerate, and the scalar curvature as well as the density become infinite.

“The view that this singular status robs the big bang of its event-status in the GTR has been carefully justified by J. Stachel (1993): As he showed, points of the theoretical manifold first acquire the physical significance of being events, when they stand in the chrono-geometric relations specified by the spacetime metric, which does double duty, of course, as the gravitational field in the GTR. As Stachel put it, "in general relativity, there is no structure on the differentiable manifold that is both independent of the metric tensor and able to serve as an individuating field-that is, to turn the [ideal] points of the manifold into points of [physical] space-time."

“Thus, in the GTR it turns out that the notion of an event makes physical sense only when both manifold and metric structure are well defined around it. And in that theory, spacetime is taken to be the collection of all physical events. Thus, the big bang does not qualify as a physical event of the spacetime having three spatial coordinates and one time coordinate.

“Case (i) features a cosmic time interval that is closed at the big bang instant t = 0, and furthermore, this instant had no temporal predecessor. In this relativistically illegitimate case, which nonetheless figures in the debate, t = 0 was a temporally first event of the physical spacetime at which all of the world-lines of the universe originated. Thus, there simply did not exist any instants of time before t = 0. But the relativistically bona fide big bang models under Case (ii) differ from those in the forbidden Case (i) by excluding the mathematical singularity at t = 0 as not being a physical event or an actual moment in time.”

Invoking this spurious Case (i), which Nalikar does, “give[s] what I see as an ill-founded creationist twist to the question of the temporal origin, if any, of the universe.”

The problem seems clear enough to me, that Grünbaum rejects singularity claims as being too obviously creationistic--which, since he _and_ Narlikar both are excluding theistic action, essentially entails supernaturalistic atheism in principle. But singularity claims involve a finitude of time!--something he elsewhere calls atheists to task for imposing an ideological rigidity _against_ accepting as legitimately scientific theory.

(To be fair, though, Grünbaum probably means that he considers Narlikar’s theory to be legitimately scientific--because it’s _atheistic_, even if creationistic. Or rather, it’s legitimately scientific by being atheistic, _except_ when he’s calling this kind of theory spurious and other synonyms for ‘illegitimate’. {g})

As an aside to Victor, Keith Parson’s 2006 essay on ontological status, “No Creator Need Apply”, originally presented as a less revised paper to a University of Toledo conference on science and religion in April of last year, would be an even more up-to-date resource for Keith’s counter-cosmological argument. I wish I had time tonight to comment on it in full.

Suffice to say: 1) I actually agree with a large amount of his argument (despite how it may seem throughout much of the remainder of this paragraph {lopsided g!}); 2) I think his attempt at hewing to the notion of an existant quantum vacuum from which the universe came is better than trying to do the same thing while also insisting that nothing existed not even a vacuum; 3) consequently his position falls into my category (b) above (not into one or the other version of (a), as I was recalling of him--my bad!), since he can hardly propose that this energy is anything like the matter/energy that it produced (having zero physical characteristics for instance--or being something of which Hawkins had to say, in 1976, which as far as I know he is still saying, that no laws of _any_ kind govern its behavior); 4) which leaves him advocating a position that, ontologically speaking, is effectively indistinguishable from supernaturalism (even if not theism); 5) and also leaves him unable to _complain_ _against_ “violations” of the space-time continuum, in principle. Which is what he is doing in the article Victor quoted, and which complaint I was talking about originally in this thread. {trying to get the topic back on track...}{g}

The only difference between a ‘violation’ from this proposedly pre-cosmic energy in producing and continuing to introduce effects into the evident system of Nature; and God doing the same thing; is that God is theistic while this energy is (or anyway looks to be!) safely atheistic. That, and it might be allowed that the pre-cosmic energy isn’t upkeeping the natural system, even though both having produced it and still introducing effects into it. (I’m inclined to expect that it is upkeeping the evident natural system, though; and given Keith’s respectful regard for creatio continuans--which he rejects primarily where used as an appeal for _theistic_ upkeep--I would expect him not to have any real conceptual problem with it, either. So long as it’s only atheistic creatio continuans. {s})

This is also supposing (somewhat charitably) that he considers the pre-cosmic primordial vacuum to have actual reality (such that we may call its behaviors ‘energy’ even if not at all what we mean by _natural_ energy), and not merely _potential_ reality--which is an abstract logical notion made by _our_ analysis as rationally active entities, in comparison to a proposed-or-actual actuality set.

I am willing to allow the notion of quantum fields and random quantum fluctuations in relation to an actual (but otherwise unstated) existance; but if these fields and fluctuations have no actual content (and they cannot have any _natural_ content)... then I would have to say at best we’re looking at a fundamentally _noetic_ reality (AAGGHH!!! THEISM!! {g}) or else we’re really talking about the kind of ‘nothing’ he insists doesn’t exist in this situation, and then colorfully describing this nothing in terms of potentialities, _as if_ something existed. (And now we’re back to category (a), btw.)

Oh, and observation 6) would be: a lot of Keith’s framework for discourse, pro or con various positions, hinges on privative aseity being accepted (by him and his opponents alike). Several of his criticisms would fall if positive aseity was being proposed instead. (Which, incidentally, is what I think orthodox trinitarianism is supposed to be involving, instead of privative aseity. Be that as it may, it’s hardly _his_ fault that the discussion is routinely presented in terms of privative aseity.)

Keith’s more recent ontological discourse can be found here:

As I said, it’s well worth looking into. If it seems like I’m slamming physicists for not be sufficiently skillful metaphysicians, I assure you I can (and routinely do) level an even stronger set of criticisms against philosophers and theologians who are doing no better at being coherent metaphysicians--and with far less excuse than physicists who have an understandable lack of training in the discipline. Keith excoriates a scholar from my own side of the ideological aisle on what amounts to a near-total fudging of the metaphysical math. When I say I largely agree with what he’s doing in this essay, that’s what I’m talking about.

I could go into this in a lot more depth, but it would mainly involve looking at x-scholar saying y, and then parsing out what the implications are of y (maybe especially compared to z being claimed nearby from the same scholar). I don’t know whether Anon is a physicist or not, and actually it doesn’t matter much; since he (or she) is here, and all these other people aren’t at the moment. Whatever various physicists (and their subsequent proponents) may be saying, the practical result is going to be whatever Anon is bringing to the table here and now, from them, as a physicist or not.

It is one thing for a group (even in an apparent majority) to _say_ they hold to (b) or (d); it is another thing whether their implications when added up logically _amount to_ (b) or (d)--or (a). (I remind readers, however, that (d) is the only position I mentioned which actually fits with some kind of valid _complaint_ from Keith in the article Victor quotes from, concerning a proposal of violation. And in the case of (d), even assuming he was actually holding it, which I don’t doubt he was at least partially intending to do, the complaint amounts, as I also have already noted, to, ‘But that isn’t naturalism! And naturalism is _true_!’ It seems a little ingenuous, if not disingenuous, to complain that an opponent’s proposal isn’t one’s own proposal and then to hold that fact against the opponent’s proposal!)

Moving along, then, at long last, to finish out comments on Anon’s actual letter.

{{In any case, the default assumption of most cosmologists is that a complete theory of quantum gravity, if one is ever found, will describe how space and time "emerged" from some high-energy quantum state (or "quantum foam").}}

If that really is the default assumption of most (nontheistic) cosmologists today, that’s fine; I’ll revise my proportions accordingly. It makes not the slightest difference to my criticism of Keith Parsons’ complaint (which was my main topic, though the bird-dogging here is admittedly important, too. {s!})

{{This is presumably the position you were sketching out in (b).}}

I would agree, the position (insofar as it stays this position, which isn’t exactly as easy as it may seem--an observation I make just as readily when considering theological positions, btw) is analogous to (b). I have no particular compunction about the majority being either (a) or (b), btw; since I have already stated that sooner or later I expect a far more robust proposition of (d) to be generally presented across the board. Also, that this is the position I would be at technical pains to defend if I was a naturalist; otherwise I would be obliged to admit that I am holding what either is or might as well be a supernaturalistic position, or at best would have to abandon naturalism for agnosticism on the topic.

Such a shift would make no difference at all, in itself, to my atheism, if I was also an atheist. But due to a routine (and methodologically illegitimate) conflation of the topical claims theism/atheism and supernaturalism/naturalism, across all scholarly fields, not to say in popular usage, it shouldn’t be surprising if dedicated atheists dig in their heels at admitting supernaturalistic implications of their proposals. Their lack of training in metaphysical analysis would be the problem here; if they understood the issues better, they might safely move along to admitting supernaturalism--_or_ do a better job at stringently holding to ontological naturalism.

{{[A]s far as I can tell, the difference between your positions (b) and (d) is akin to the difference between substance dualism and substance monism.}}

That seems like a fair enough way to put it.

{{It is difficult to see how such a difference would translate into the language of physics...}}

A problem physicists themselves have not-infrequently stated. {g}

{{...and I suspect that most physicists would regard positions (b) and (d) as empirically equivalent.}}

The positions would be empirically indistinguishable, as far as I can tell--go back far enough and all observational factors cease to be even possibly applied in any case, after which the best one can do is make inferences about the situation from propositional logic (even concerning quantum behavior in the pre-Planckian universe.) That the positions would be empirically _equivalent_, though, I expect most physicists would deny, once they thought it over. If the positions were empirically equivalent, then one would be expecting to be capable in principle (even if not in practice) of empirically quantifying and otherwise studying the foundational level; but that is precisely what category (b) (and (a) and (c)) would deny. So, the conceptual difference between the positions rules out (in this case) an empirical equivalence.

In the case of category (d), those unquantifiable and unempirical behaviors would be a result of interactions between fundamental empirical entities in a fundamentally empirical reality. I strenuously doubt most particle physicists hold to _that_ right now! But I think they’re going to discover eventually that this is the only way to hold to naturalism per se; consequently, remaining naturalists will be working more strongly to go this route. The other proponents will start becoming more obviously supernaturalistic in their proposals, even if they find some other less problematic-sounding term to use. This has nothing in itself to do with _atheism_, I reiterate.

{{Whatever their feelings towards positions (a)-(d), I can assure you that the vast majority of physicists do not believe that their views (or lack of views) on the "origins of Nature" commit them to the existence of anything supernatural.}}

I am quite aware of that, which is why I went to the trouble to outline the implications of the four categories. (Also why I said, as you rightly quoted, “something _effectively_ supernatural”.) I don’t think I was just making convenient assertions when I discussed the implications of positions in (a) and (b); I took the time to talk about why (and to what extent) those positions should be distinguished as effectively involving supernaturalism.

As you also seem aware of, most physicists don’t have much training or expertise in metaphysics. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, if they end up making claims they think involve one ontological position when in fact the implications involve a different ontological position. As you say, for people in that position, it wouldn’t matter _what_ properties quantum foam turns out to have; they’ll consider it to be a natural entity, because right now that’s the default conceptual framework.

Someone with stronger metaphysical training could be better at detecting the metaphysical implications of the properties the physicists are claiming, though. I am reasonably asked to trust trained physicists within their trained speciality; must I similarly rely on the claims they make _outside_ their trained speciality?? For when they regard an entity as “an entirely natural entity”, they are and will be making a statement in metaphysics: a field they may not have much training in (or even explicit interest in!)

{{Physicists, it seems, are committed to supernaturalism whether they believe it or not.}}

If they are proposing (a..c), as I said. (c) was always explicitly supernatural from the outset; and even I didn’t claim more than a tiny percentage of physicists went _that_ route. (b) is effectively supernaturalism, too, even if not recognized as such--what did you think ‘substance dualism’ involves?? When naturalists oppose theories of substance dualism in epistemology, what did you think they were opposing?!

Proponents of (b) tend to go with (b) _rather than_ (a-1), not only because of conceptual difficulties regarding the t=0 singularity, but also because (as I illustrated from Grünbaum as a vocal example) the implications of supernaturalism (or ‘creationism’ as Grünbaum calls it) seem too inescapable there. (That, or a contradiction of the law of noncon. Grünbaum is quite clear about this, in his own way, despite the fact that, ironically, one of his key criticisms of Narlikar’s position is that it’s actually an incoherent naturalism claim!)

(a-2)’s main difference from (b) is that the physicists who hold it simply defer the question as scientifically improper. I noted that this was tantamount to agnosticism on the topic; it can’t be claimed as supernaturalism by logical implication. (But neither, by just that paucity, a no-statement on the topic, can it offer safe grounds for Keith’s _complaint_--which, recall, was my main topic of discussion. {s})

Jason Pratt

Jason said...

Sigh. Crap. "Blooger" flatly refused to accept my "a href" coding, for reasons I don't understand (I checked the format several times, it ought to have been fine); but then runs the raw html address off the side instead of wrapping it around the column. {hating the blogger/google merger}

Grünbaum's article can be found (trying again) at:

Keith Parsons' more recent (2006) article can be found at

I had to put a carriage return after the modern/ in each case, so when copy pasting the addresses, be sure to copy-paste both elements into one string on the address line.